When does a dependent have to file a tax return?

Young African-American boy, wearing a bowtie, and counting money from his lemonade stand, not worried about the possibility of having to file a dependent tax return.Image: Young African-American boy, wearing a bowtie, and counting money from his lemonade stand, not worried about the possibility of having to file a dependent tax return.

In a Nutshell

If you have dependents who earn income, you can’t just add what they earn to your income tax return (in most cases). They may be required to file their own dependent tax return for any federal income tax they may owe. Or they may want to file their own return in order to get a refund of any tax they overpaid or claim a credit they’re eligible for.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and Jennifer Samuel, senior product specialist for Credit Karma. It has been updated for the 2020 tax year.

If you have dependents with income, can you just add their income to yours when you file your federal tax return?

In most cases, the answer is “no.”

Generally, you can’t include your dependent’s income with yours on your tax return, although there are exceptions. If your income-earning dependents are required to file (or want to file in order to claim a tax refund or credit), they’ll have to file their own tax return, separate from yours. And if your dependents aren’t capable of filing their own return (think: young children), then it’s your responsibility to file on their behalf and ensure any tax they owe gets paid.

Whether a dependent must file a return is based on multiple factors, including the amount and type of their income.

Let’s look at what to do about dependent income at tax time.

Who qualifies as a dependent?

You may think it’s pretty obvious as to who counts as a dependent and who doesn’t for the purposes of your federal tax return, but there are subtleties in the tax code.

For someone to qualify as your dependent, they must meet these basic criteria.

  • They must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or U.S. resident alien, or a resident of Canada or Mexico.
  • They must not be claimed as a dependent on anyone else’s return.
  • They must not file a joint tax return or only file a joint return in order to claim a refund of tax they paid.
  • They must not claim anyone else as a dependent on their own return.
  • They must have received more than half their total support from you during the tax year.

There are additional criteria for qualifying children.

For example, you might assume a child who lives with you only counts as a dependent child if they’re your child, either biological or adopted. But foster children, your siblings or step-siblings, half-siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews might qualify as your dependents if they meet the basic criteria and additional qualifications, including the following:

  • The child must be younger than 19 at the end of the tax year and younger than you (or your spouse if you file jointly).
  • If a student, then they’re younger than 24 at the end of the tax year and younger than you (or your spouse).
  • They can be any age if permanently and totally disabled.
  • The child lived with you for more than half the year (there are exceptions).

Adults may be qualifying dependents too, regardless of their age. The IRS may consider them a qualifying relative if they …

  • Are related to you, or if they’re not related to you, lived with you all year (although there are exceptions)
  • Made less than a specific amount of income during the tax year
  • Aren’t a qualifying child or relative of another taxpayer

Those criteria apply regardless of whether the adult is actually related to you. And in some cases, you may be able to claim a qualifying relative as a dependent even if they didn’t live with you for the required time.

Claiming a dependent on your tax return might make you eligible for certain tax deductions or tax credits that could help lower your tax bill, so it’s worth navigating the rules to see who qualifies. You can use an IRS tool to help determine who might qualify as your dependent.

How income affects the dependent tax return

There are two basic types of taxable income: earned and unearned.

Earned income is all of the taxable income and wages you received from working (or from certain disability payments). You can get earned income by working for someone else or for yourself.

Unearned income is exactly what it sounds like — income you received but didn’t earn through work. Some examples of unearned income include …

  • Interest and dividends
  • Retirement income
  • Social Security
  • Unemployment pay
  • Alimony
  • Child support
  • Pay received for work while an inmate in a penitentiary

The type and amount of income a dependent has will influence whether or not they’ll be required to file a tax return. And other criteria apply as well.

When is a dependent required to file a return?

In addition to the type and amount of a dependent’s income, a dependent’s age and disability can also play a role.

Generally, single dependents must file a federal return if any of the following applies to their income:

  • They have more than $1,100 of unearned income ($2,750 if 65 or older or blind, or $4,400 if 65 or older and blind)
  • They have earned income of more than $12,400 ($14,050 if 65 or older or blind, or $15,700 if 65 or older and blind)
  • Their gross income exceeded a certain threshold (they’ll need to do some math)

For married dependents, the threshold amounts are …

  • Unearned income of more than $1,100 ($2,400 if 65 or older or blind, or $3,700 if 65 or older and blind)
  • Earned income of more than $12,400 ($13,700 if 65 or older or blind, or $15,000 if 65 or older and blind)
  • Your gross income was at least $5 and your spouse files a separate return and itemizes deductions

If a dependent has both earned and unearned income, they’ll need to do some calculations to determine if they’re required to file. Additionally, there are other situations in which a dependent may be required to file, like if they had net earnings from self-employment of at least $400 or earned $108.28 or more working for a church or qualified church-controlled organization that’s exempt from employer Social Security and Medicare taxes.

A small but key part of filling out a tax return as a dependent: Check the box that says “Someone can claim you as a dependent.” From there, your income and other factors will influence your tax bracket, standard deduction (if you choose to take it) and a number of other items on your tax return. If you’re a parent filling out the return on behalf of a child, be sure to sign it “By (your signature), parent for minor child.”

When you can include a dependent’s income on your tax return

Though it might seem more convenient to report your dependent’s income on your own return, the IRS has strict rules about this.

“As far as the parent claiming the dependent’s earned income, that’s a big no-no,” says Michael Sacco, certified public accountant and owner of tax firm Sacco & Associates LLC. “If a child is working and gets a W-2, chances are that child is basically starting to pay into Social Security. The parent can, however, claim a child’s investment income.”

If the child is younger than 19 (younger than 24 if a full-time student) and has only interest and dividend income of less than $10,500, then the child’s unearned income may be included in the parent’s income on the parent’s return.

The so-called kiddie tax is the government’s way of staying “one step ahead,” Sacco says.

And he goes on to suggest the IRS motivation behind the kiddie tax.

“They always feel that maybe families — parents and grandparents — try to shift their assets into their child’s name so their child won’t be paying the same rate as they would.”

When a dependent may want to file — even if they don’t have to

Even if the dependent isn’t required to file a tax return, they may choose to file because it’s the only way to get a refund they’re owed.

For example, say your 15-year-old son earns $3,000 working a summer job and has taxes withheld. If he’s due a refund of any of the tax withheld, filing a return is the way to get that refund.

“A lot of times, the dependent’s income is not a lot,” says Sacco.

But it could still be worth filing.

“We would file a tax return for them just to get the withholdings back into their pocket,” he says.

In addition to filing for the purpose of claiming a refund, a dependent might opt to file to claim credits like the earned income credit.

Bottom line

Generally, if your dependent has any type of income, it’s a good idea to check if they may need or want to file a tax return. If the dependent has unearned income to report, you may be able to claim it on your federal return under certain circumstances — but if it’s earned income, you can’t. If you’re still not sure if your dependent should file, check out the IRS Interactive Tax Assistant: Do I Need to File a Tax Return?

Relevant sources: IRS: Publication 929 — Tax Rules for Children and Dependents | IRS: 1040 and 1040-SR Instructions | IRS: FAQ — Age Limit on Children as Dependents | IRS: What Is Earned Income? | IRS: How You Earn Credits | IRS: Topic No. 553 Tax on a Child’s Investment and Other Unearned Income (Kiddie Tax)

Jennifer Samuel, senior tax product specialist for Credit Karma, has more than a decade of experience in the tax preparation industry, including work as a tax analyst and tax preparation professional. She holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Saint Leo University. You can find her on LinkedIn.

About the author: Kim Porter is a writer and editor who has written for AARP the Magazine, Credit Karma, Reviewed.com, U.S. News & World Report, and more. Her favorite topics include maximizing credit card rewards and budgeting. Wh… Read more.